The state of modern hip hop has been heavily debated throughout the past couple of years. There are many that claim hip hop is dead and will never live up to the golden age and there are also some that claim that hip hop is amid a resurgence of some sort. Backpackers, hipsters, homers and haters galore!
Very rarely, there is a project that unifies the opinions of all hip hop fans worldwide. I’m speaking so rarely that this has NEVER happened in modern hip hop. Nevertheless, there are albums that have been released that SHOULD unify the opinions of all hip hop fans but for some reason or another, they do not and they fade away into history among all the other releases from a certain time period.
Undun, by The Legendary Roots crew was released in was released in December 2011. It was full of lively instrumentals, flawless rap verses, soulful hooks and was packaged in a way where it actually told a story. It was a concept album with a plot so deep that it could have been made into a movie, all the while being told through a masterful musical medium. It had songs that were upbeat and empowering as well as songs that were thought-provoking and meaningful. Undun really had a way of taking a listener through a profound journey from beginning to end.
The art of the concept album has never really been executed as well as The Roots have with this album for quite some time. Some may argue that Kendrick Lamar was able to create a concept album in GKMC as effectively as The Roots did with Undun, however, I would argue that Kendrick’s offering was more of a clever way to justify packaging a mixture of radio hits and socially impactful tracks in a logical way. I am not trying to take anything away from that idea, rather, I would say that the way Kendrick Lamar packaged his album was genius but if we compare impact felt by a certain concept carried out in an album: Undun is far superior.
In order to try and do the album justice, I have decided to try and break down each track of the album while offering my interpretation of the plot. The album depicts the rise and fall of a young man, named Redford Stevens. The album touches on dark themes that come from a life of drug dealing and a gangster mentality. The album is structured in a way where it starts off with Redford’s death. The Roots paint a picture of a broken man and as the album progresses, the listener is able to learn of how he got to the point he was during his demise. Every track uncovers a part of his past that tries to justify why he is the way he is and why he has done the things he has done.
Dun – The Roots
The album kicks off with an instrumental track. It appears to start with a high pitched sound that resembles the sound of a heart rate that has flat lined.
Sleep – The Roots
“The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
|The slow cadence of the track paints a picture of Redford slightly hanging on to life. The hook is eerie and Black Thought’s verses are haunting and reflective. It seems like a life of hardship and questionable decisions have karma’s vengeance hammering down on a soon-to-be dead protagonist.|
Make My – The Roots Feat. Big K.R.I.T & Dice Raw
“Make My” successfully acts as a microcosm of the album. It encapsulates all of the albums’ positive aspects from an amazing beat filled with depth to heavy thought provoking verses. At the time of the release, Big K.R.I.T was still an up and coming rapper and his verse was one of the best on the entire album. Redford is knowingly close to death and very self reflective on this track. Was the life he led and the successes he saw worth it? Have his decisions he made weighed too heavy on his psyche?
“Addicted to the green, if I don’t ball I’ll get the shakes
I’d give it all for peace of mind, for Heaven’s sake
My heart’s so heavy that the ropes that hold my casket breaks
Cause everything that wasn’t for me, I had to chase”
– Big K.R.I.T
One Time – The Roots Feat. Phonte & Dice Raw
“The pendulum swinging my way – couldn’t be more blind
N*ggas talk to the cops? Not even one time
Cause we all going down just like the subprime
Or a cheap ass half gallon of Ballantine
But hopping over gates to escape is sublime
Then through the alley way and down to the sub line
Tales from the streets, a life of high crime
To make it to the bottom: such a high climb”
– Dice Raw
?uestlove starts a trend at this point on this album by laying out some infectious drum rhythms. Another trend that starts on this point in the album is the layering of some melodic piano chords to create enticing instrumentals. The album starts to liven up as the story starts to stray away from Redford’s death and closer to the bulk of how he led his life. As he is still very self-reflective on this track, he is much more unforgiving and on more of the attitude aligning with the mantra of “by any means necessary”. Redford is very much aware of the dangers of his actions and beliefs, but he believes they are necessary.
Kool On – The Roots Feat. Greg Porn & Truck North
“Swag is on retard, charm is on massage
|The soulful looped sample and the guitar chord on the forefront of the instrumental create a more celebratory atmosphere for this track. It feels as though Redford is in his prime; he has made all the right (wrong?) moves to achieve what he has worked his whole life for. Violence and crime in exchange for money and success never sounded so worth it.|
The Otherside – The Roots Feat. Bilal Oliver & Greg Porn
|“The Otherside” is a track that is filling to the brim with hope. You can feel that Redford is so close at breaking down the barrier of success. He is convicted in his movements and understands that everything that he wants is only a couple steps away. The beat and hook are so uplifting that it is extremely easy for the listener to forget all of the morally crushing idealisms that Redford represents. Black Thought is seriously in top form on this song.|
“Listen if it not for these hood inventions
Stomp – The Roots Feat. Greg Porn
“Was this a matter of flesh and blood? Yes it was
Does it matter who win and lose? Yes it does
It ain’t about the most blessed love
When you return to the essence, what is it back to the essence of?
Greatness I wasn’t in the prescence of, cause you was fake and never measured up
You just a n*gga on his regular, but how far am I ahead of ya
It just as easily coulda been me instead of ya.”
– Black Thought
“Stomp” is that get-your-ski-mask-on-and-rob-a-convenience-store type shit. It’s that start-a-revolution type shit. It’s that get-hyped-up-before-your-football-game-shit. Most importantly it’s that shit that highlights Redford’s loss of grip of his morality. He is willing and ready to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Whether it is through violence or breaking the law, Redford is ready.
Lighthouse – The Roots Feat. Dice Raw
“Lighthouse” showcases one of the catchiest beats on the entirety of the album. The theme of the track seems to be “sink or swim” as Redford is at a crossroads in his life. He can choose to live a life where he would be easily forgotten or lose his sense of humanity and chase a life of crime. The album showcases a self-reflective Redford, similarly to how the beginning of the album did.
“The grim reaper telling me to swim deeper
Where the people go to – lo and behold, the soul keeper
I’m not even breaking out in a sweat
Or cold fever but I’m never paying up on my debt or tolls either”
– Black Thought
I Remember – The Roots
“It’s only human to express the way you really feel
|“I Remember” is very somber and hits the listener square in the feels. Redford understands that he is in a very dire situation. He is set up for failure and has little to no chance to change his fortune. The timeline of the album is very clear up to this point, as it moves in a backwards linear motion through Redford’s life. “I Remember”, however, may be told at a perspective of a Redford from the future looking back on his life. Either way, it tells a story of Redford at a point in his life before he realized the potential of his abilities; he thought he was doomed.|
Tip the Scale – The Roots Feat. Dice Raw
“Now I realize it’s the winner that takes all
Do what I gotta do because I can’t take loss
Picture me living life as if I’m some animal
That consumes its own dreams like I’m a cannibal
I won’t accept failure unless it’s mechanical
But still the alcohol mixed with the botanical”
– Black Thought
The last track of Redford’s story may be the saddest of all the tracks, which is surprising as the listener has heard of Redford’s state before death and self reflection. “Tip the Scale” gives the listener a sense of what Redford’s motivation was to do all that he did in his life. It ties the story perfectly together as his perspectives are expressed through the tragic verses and atmospheric instrumental.
Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou) – Sufjan Stevens
Possibility (2nd Movement) – The Roots
Will to Power (3rd Movement) – The Roots
Finality (4th Movement) – The Roots
Modesty aside, I have a pretty damn good idea of what most of the tracks meant in terms of the story because of how many plays this album has gotten through my headphones. These last four instrumental tracks, however, continue to stump me to this day. Are they recapping Redford’s story from beginning to end (or end to beginning)? Are they depicting his life before where “Tip the Scale” takes place? All I know is “Will to Power” makes me feel uncomfortable.
I truly believe that rap music is at its best when it sets out to be profound and thought-provoking. Where other genres of music need to rely strictly on the atmosphere and mood created by playing instruments in unison, rap music has the advantage of containing a large amount of words which can be used to translate a certain theme that an artist wants to express. It is an alarming trend that most rap music out these days are as superficial as it gets even though the genre is optimally set up to utilize the art of poetry to its advantage. The Roots’ album, Undun, is an album that showcases rap music at its utmost greatest potential.